- - Wednesday, June 5, 2019


Not everyone gets to save the world. Before the colors of the Sixth of June 1944 fade into the mists of time, we remember after the passage of 75 years the uncommon sacrifice of the hundreds of thousands of soldiers of America, of Britain and Canada, a token force of Free Frenchmen and soldiers of several other nations who struggled on the beaches of Normandy to secure the foothold that enabled the liberation of Europe. We pay particular homage to the 9,000 Americans who sleep in the great cemetery above the beaches. They rest in the peace of American soil, sovereignty conveyed by a grateful France.

President Trump and representatives of allied nations will honor them in ceremonies Thursday in Normandy, the occasion recalling Lincoln’s words at the cemetery at Gettysburg, when he honored that earlier generation that gave their lives so that men might live free. Lincoln acknowledged that “we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract.” But we must try.

Not everyone, apparently, can focus on the occasion to honor sacrifice of life and limb to preserve freedom. The anniversary never fails to cast partisanship aside, bringing tears to the eyes and hearts of the hard and the tough, but The Washington Post churlishly offered a story headlined “How Trump will ruin the 75th anniversary of D-Day.” In the event, the anniversary was not ruined, and a diminishing number of D-Day survivors, all in their 90s and some approaching a full century of life, are there as living monuments to a moment in the human story when virtue, at least for the day, was ascendant over vice. This is likely to be the final grand salute to “the greatest generation” that won World War II.

This was a war that wasn’t supposed to happen. Given the proximity to World War I, “the war to end all wars” that took the lives of 10 million soldiers and 20 million civilians and ended only two decades earlier, another war on the European continent had seemed unthinkable. But before the Allies ended the quest of Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich another 24 million soldiers and seamen and 50 million civilians would go to their graves on land and at sea.

The 156,000 troops from eight nations who stormed the beaches of Normandy had hoped the cover of darkness and fair weather would work to allied advantage in surprising the 50,000 Germans dug in along the French coastline. But it was not to be. At 5:20 a.m. the commander of a German observation post above the beaches stepped up to the slit in the concrete bunker to have a look. Color drained from his face. “It’s the invasion,” he said softly to a junior officer. “There must be 10,000 ships out there.” The other officer scoffed. “The enemy doesn’t have 10,000 ships.”

“Come up here and see for yourself the 10,000 ships you say are not there.” Gathered before them, stretching to the far horizon, was a spectacle not likely to be seen ever again. It was the greatest invasion force in history, 5,000 allied ships (the exaggeration was understandable), a line of cruisers and destroyers and behind them the great battleships Arkansas, Texas and Nevada, and behind them hundreds of ships with decks covered by 2,727 landing boats made of three-quarter inch plywood, the storied Higgins boats, that over the next 24 hours would take 156,000 soldiers to the killing fields.

The landing boats raced to the beaches in tight formation at top speed and under relentless German fire, communicating without radios, cellphones, beepers and the electronic paraphernalia that would one day be ubiquitous, nothing to guide but navigation flags of accompanying control boats barely visible in the smoke of battle. By 10:30 on the night of June 6, immortalized as “the longest day,” the five beachheads — Omaha, Utah, Gold, Juno and Sword — were secure, and Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, the supreme allied commander, could discard his prepared statement taking personal blame if the day had failed.

The day did not fail, and the Allies, led by the Americans, the British, Canadians and including soldiers of the Netherlands, Australia and New Zealand, sometimes sneered at in certain quarters as “the Anglo-Saxons,” would write a legend in blood that would last as long as men and women honor courage and pay homage to the bravery of free men. Seventy-five years on, the legend holds.

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